South Whidbey superintendent discusses school alternatives

Dan Poolman, school district business manager, answers a budget question during Wednesday’s conclusion to a series of “conversations” about the district’s future.  - Jim Larsen/The Record
Dan Poolman, school district business manager, answers a budget question during Wednesday’s conclusion to a series of “conversations” about the district’s future.
— image credit: Jim Larsen/The Record

South Whidbey School District next year may chop a hour off the full-day kindergarten schedule, cut the Spanish K-8 program, combine the two alternative school programs at one location, let high school students “challenge” classes to get credit for them, and create a K-12 media specialist position.

The school board hasn’t acted on the ideas yet, but they’re among those being proposed by Superintendent Jo Moccia and aired at Wednesday night’s third in a three-part series of “community conversations” held with the public.

Speaking to a sizable audience of teachers and parents, Moccia used straight talk, candor and humor to win them over, earning applause a few times.

“I wish my mother were here,” she replied after fielding a compliment on her performance during her first year on the job at South Whidbey, as laughter spread through the crowd.

But Moccia made clear that planning a K-12 education program during a time of a shrinking student population and shrinking budgets is no laughing matter, and her proposals to address the problems will have serious consequences.

If the school board approves, full-day kindergarten students will be let out at 2:30 p.m. rather than 3:30 p.m., a move endorsed by the teachers who will use the extra hour to plan together.

Moccia agreed it could pose child care and transportation problems for parents, and acknowledged to an interrogator that parents could have been better notified of the plan.

“I blew it,” she said, agreeing that a better effort should be made to reach out and “engage parents.”

She displayed her candor when the same questioner said it’s the school district’s responsibility to fill the extra hour of kindergartners’ time.

“I don’t happen to agree with that,” Moccia replied. She added, however, that an after school child care program may be offered, and if the little ones ride home on the same bus as high school students, there may be trained student “caretakers” and volunteer parents riding along.

“They’re not riding with wild high school kids who might use the F bomb,” Moccia quipped, again making the crowd laugh.

She said the district has 70 students involved in the home-school Whidbey Island Academy program and the alternative Bayview High School. She will propose combining them at the primary school campus where there can be one administrator and dedicated teachers to sustain both programs.

“We don’t want an ‘orphan’ program,” she told the audience.

Moccia described the existing K-8 Spanish program as ineffective with its 45-minute weekly classes, adding that cuts have to be made. Physical education, which was an issue at an earlier meeting, will still be mandatory at the K-5 level, and the district’s cherished music and arts programs will be untouched by further cuts. A “media specialist” position would help all students with library and media knowledge.

“That’s quite innovative,” she said of the media specialist.

The state now allows students to “challenge” courses and get credit for their knowledge, not seat time. South Whidbey will offer the option next year. Fred O’Neal, a school board member, cautioned that such students should be given some other class to take so state funding will not be lost. And John Patton, high school principal, cautioned, “We have to make sure we’re granting credit where it’s due.”

The Legislature this spring didn’t significantly cut education spending as many expected, but South Whidbey still faces a budget shortfall, Dan Poolman, business manager, told the crowd. Due to declining enrollment and a commensurate reduction in state funding, the budget for next year has to be reduced by approximately $1.25 million.

Among the cuts will be 2.5 certificated staff, 2.14 employee retirements that won’t be replaced and 3.8 full-time equivalent classified employee cuts. Those, combined with energy savings, a fund balance transfer and other financial moves should make up most of the deficit.

Moccia said her planning is all about “how we’re going to move our district forward when it’s losing revenue and losing students.” About 60 fewer students are expected next year as the long decline in enrollment continues. This year there are 120 seniors but only 90 kindergartners.

The school board will discuss some of the proposed changes at its next meeting Wednesday, March 25 at 6:30 p.m. in the library at the primary school on Maxwelton Road.


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